Chinese is the hardest language to read in the world.
An outstanding Chinese translation app can serve as a much-needed lifesaver.
Without a little help, you might feel ready to throw in the towel.
At least, that’s what probably comes to mind when you’re met with a completely unfamiliar text filled with tens, if not hundreds, of unknown characters.
This situation is unfortunately an all too common occurrence for many Chinese learners.
While it might be somewhat of an exaggeration to say that Chinese is the absolute hardest written language out there, it’s definitely close to taking the prize and it’s pretty difficult to master.
Chinese may be a challenge, but it’s not one that modern-day learners of Chinese can’t handle.
We have something at our disposal which makes Chinese reading a whole lot easier: translation apps.
The Complete Guide to Finding the Best Chinese Translation Apps out There
In the past, translating unknown Chinese words was a time-consuming process involving tome-like dictionaries.
Nowadays learners have a wide range of online translation apps available for easy use. Don’t even think about those musty old books—your smartphone holds the key to swift, precise translation.
5 Different Types of Chinese Translation Apps
There’s no one way to translate Chinese. There are five main types of Chinese translation apps out there in the digital marketplace, and we’re going to explore each one in-depth so you can make the best choices. You may even decide to mix and match!
Also consider using any of these apps in combination with FluentU. It’s important to actively learn in addition to using translators, and FluentU helps you do exactly that. We’ll talk more about FluentU later in this post!
The first and most familiar kind of translation app is the kind that any learner will encounter while surfing the next. These are online, browser-based translators.
Sites like Google Translate and Bing Translator can very rapidly translate whole passages of Chinese into comprehensible English. However, the key word here is comprehensible. While these so-called “machine translation” apps have come a long way in recent years, they still make numerous grammatical errors and the syntax can come out rather awkward.
Furthermore, specific to Chinese, these programs often horribly mistranslate complex chengyu idioms (which makes sense, because the meaning lies in the connotation and history of these phrases).
The reason to use an online, browser-based translator is for translating larger passages. You can often produce a translation that’s halfway decent and catches the gist of each sentence. Then, all you have to do is go in and do a little cleanup to make sentences sound natural and correct mistakes.
Instant Character Translation
Online translators have been around for a long time, but new mobile apps have taken them to a whole new level. Using smartphone cameras, this kind of app uses a technology called Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to identify all Chinese characters within a given field of view. Then, this character data is instantly translated by the app (with the assistance of online, cloud-based translating tech) into readable English.
Of course, most translation software, whether on a computer or a smartphone, only functions as a translator for a large portion of text. Should a learner want to go deep, rather than broad, they’d be better served by a word dictionary translator. These applications allow a user to look up individual words or characters, and understand not just a single possible reading of them, but rather all possible readings and uses.
Picture & Video Translation
If you’re looking for a translator that’s more memorable and immersive than just written and audio translators, you can look into a picture or video translator. These allow you to not just see a translation but also see an associated picture and see it in use in a video.
These kinds of translators are often less comprehensive than ordinary translators, but they’re especially useful for writers who want to memorize some new words and build up a strong core vocabulary.
Similar to instant character translation, voice translation is the most technically ambitious kind of translation app currently available. Such apps promise to be able to receive Chinese audio as input, semantically understand the meaning behind what was said, translate it into English and then read it out. Using devices with large amounts of processing power, backed with cloud-networking, these apps enable near real-time voice communication even if you don’t speak a word of Chinese.
Our Winners for the Best Translation App in Each Category
Of course, just because there’s a huge number of translation apps available online and in mobile app stores doesn’t mean they’re all equally useful or worth using at all. With this in mind, here are the best programs and apps available in each translation category.
Online Translators (Winner): Google Translate
While it has a rather bad reputation for producing humorous errors, Google Translate is still probably the best translator out there. It can rapidly translate huge chunks of texts, and can even translate entire websites through a Chrome plugin. While the resulting translations are far from perfect, it’s still able to produce generally comprehensible text that has a good understanding of the grammatical semantics of Chinese and English.
What’s more, this online application is constantly improving. Users are able to confirm whether a given translation was of good quality, and repeated confirmations “teach” the program how to translate better, through a process called Machine Learning. While competitors like Bing Translator use an identical approach, Google has more users and, thus, its software can learn and improve faster.
Online Translators (Runner Up): Yandex
Yandex is also a rather popular online translator, and it can translate both from Chinese to English and from English to Chinese. It also has a 10,000 character limit, meaning that you can translate pretty big texts, including entire documents or websites.
In addition to its straightforward translation features, Yandex also includes English and Chinese audio to accompany translations. Even though the audio is computer automated, it’s still pretty helpful to be able to hear how the Chinese characters are pronounced. Further, Yandex can be used to translate text from images, and it supports audio input. For those struggling with spelling in English or Chinese, Yandex has autocorrect.
Despite its awesome features, Yandex does seem to rely on Google and Bing for translations. This may not necessarily be a bad thing since it combines the two powerhouses into one convenient package, but it also may mean that you’ll get a similar translation on Yandex to what you’d get from Google Translate.
Instant Character Translation (Winner): Waygo
Instant character recognition and translation is still a developing niche. This being said, Waygo, an app available for iOS smartphones, is truly a feat of software engineering. (Android is also advertised but doesn’t seem to be currently available.) It’s a great piece of technology.
The app is able to translate Chinese text in real-time, using a smartphone camera, into readable English. While you might think that this app requires a constant internet connection to be operational, you’d be wrong. Almost all of Waygo’s core functionality can be used offline, making it especially useful for translation on the fly, in regions which have only very poor mobile internet connectivity.
Instant Character Translator (Runner Up): Purple Culture
Like Waygo, Purple Culture is an app that allows you to get instant character recognition and translation. Rather than using your smartphone to take a picture, however, Purple Culture supports handwritten character input for Chinese to English translation.
To get a translation, users simply draw the Chinese character they want translated, click the “Look up in dictionary” button and get a dictionary entry for that character. Dictionary entries are pretty detailed, too: they include information about strokes and radicals, pinyin and example words and sentences.
For Pro account holders, Purple Culture also lets users listen to and download audio for the characters they translate.
Word Dictionary (Winner): Pleco
As you progress through learning Chinese, you probably won’t need to be translating whole paragraphs, or even sentences any more, but rather tricky words and characters. For this, a learner would do well to download Pleco.
Also available for free from the Android and iOS app stores, this app is packed full of useful character translation features. However, what really sets it apart from the competition is the large number of options it gives for users to look up unknown characters. Stroke order, pinyin, touchpad drawing and OCR are all able to be used, allowing a learner to quickly translate a never-before-seen word.
Word Dictionary (Runner Up): MGDB Chinese
To figure out an unknown Chinese character, MGDB Chinese offers a quick solution. Simply copy and paste traditional or simplified Chinese characters for an instant translation into English.
Unable to copy and paste? Alternatively, learners can also draw in the Chinese character in question, but keep in mind that proper stroke order is required, which may pose a problem to beginner Chinese learners.
Input and results are available in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Pinyin and English. For each entry, there are example sentences with Chinese words and audio.
Picture & Video Translation (Winner): FluentU
For picture and video translation, we have a pick that teaches you Chinese while it’s translating!
FluentU has hundreds of videos to choose from, and each has Chinese and English transcriptions.
You can click on a word in the transcript or the subtitles for an instant translation and detailed information related to the word. All entries come with video and image-assisted translations, pairing the word (or phrase) with a memorable image and show videos that use the word in other contexts.
Best of all, these words can be turned into similarly multimedia flashcards that you can return to for SRS-based learning.
FluentU is available in your browser or you can download the app for iOS or Android to take your learning on the go.
Picture & Video Translation (Runner Up): Papago
Papago is an app that was developed by the popular Korean navigation app, Naver. It’s currently available for Android and Apple, and its helpful parrot mascot helps users with picture and video translation between many languages.
To use Papago is easy: simply take a picture of something and get an instant translation to and from Chinese. In addition to Chinese and English, Papago also translates to and from 12 other languages such as English, Korean, Spanish and Thai.
Best of all, Papago doesn’t need an internet connection to be used. With its offline mode, you can take it with you anywhere you go!
Voice Translator (Winner): iTranslate
iTranslate gives the impression of being the translator cousin of Siri, Apple’s voice assistant. Though I’m not sure there’s an actual connection, iTranslate is still a winner in the voice translator category.
iTranslate supports Chinese to English voice translation and vice versa. Simply press on the microphone button and get an instant translation.
Additionally, for voice-only usage, iTranslate offers the “Converse” app, and it’s truly revolutionary! Speakers simply hold down the microphone button on the screen, and the app detects the language being used and automatically transcribes and translates it into English.
Learners can also copy and paste Chinese or English text as well as take a picture of Chinese characters for a translation.
Voice Translator (Runner Up): Baidu Translate
Like iTranslate, Baidu Translate supports Chinese to English voice translation. The downside, however, is that it doesn’t offer the opposite, English to Chinese voice translation.
For a translation, users simply speak Chinese into the app. The Chinese then gets transcribed into the appropriate characters and then translated into English. Again, this is in written form, so a spoken recitation of the translation isn’t available in English.
Aside from its voice translation features, Baidu Translate has a phrasebook for common Chinese phrases and their English meanings. For multilingual users, this app also supports translation from Chinese into Korean or Japanese.
Voice Translation (Bonus): Skype Translator
Unlike the other categories of translation, real-time voice translation is still a very new field. As such, there are very few applications out there that can offer actual useful functionality. Besides the programs that we already mentioned, there are some other promising projects which could see this kind of translation break into the mainstream in the next few years.
The most interesting of these is Skype Translator, a project currently being developed by Microsoft. This advanced technology promises to allow for Skype video calls with people who speak Mandarin (and a number of other languages), with both sides’ words being actively translated via cloud software.
3 Great Tips for Using Translator Apps
1. Learners with different skill levels will use translators in different ways
The most important thing to remember when using translation apps is that you should only use translation as a supplement to learning Chinese, rather than a replacement for actual study.
This means that when you’re a beginner at Chinese, it’s okay to make heavy use of translation apps. However, you shouldn’t use the translation as a crutch, or think that you’ve learned simply by looking up a word—sometimes that new word will stick in your brain, and sometimes it won’t.
As you increase your Chinese ability, you should endeavor to slowly reduce your reliance on these applications and begin to stand on your own two feet. Try to understand new words by context alone. Eventually, by the time you’ve reached an advanced Chinese level, you should only be using translators to look up the odd unknown character.
2. Always check for mistakes—there will be errors!
While translation apps have come a long way in recent years, they’re still far from perfect. This means that there will almost always be errors in the translations produced by these apps, and these errors become more numerous when you have more characters to input at once.
As a result, it’s important for learners to never trust the raw translated output 100%, and always apply their own (even limited) knowledge of Chinese while looking for errors.
3. No app can replace a good teacher
A final thing to keep in mind when using translation apps is that while they are indeed very useful, they can in no way replace formal Chinese study and a good teacher.
While they can teach direct word-to-word translations, they miss out on much of the requisite grammar governing how a word can be used and in what context. Additionally, given that Chinese has a large number of synonyms for many words, it’s very important to sit down and actually learn the precise way of using a given word, rather than just its equivalent meaning in English.
All in all, translation apps are valuable companions for the eager Chinese learner.
They come in many types and several are at the cutting edge of what’s possible with today’s technology.
That being said, like many other good things, Chinese translation apps must be used in moderation.
Choose wisely, and use responsibly!
And One More Thing...
If you want to continue learning Chinese with interactive and authentic Chinese content, then you'll love FluentU.
FluentU naturally eases you into learning Chinese language. Native Chinese content comes within reach, and you'll learn Chinese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos.
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
FluentU's Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a 100% personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.